The more Birdie Wermy has learned, the more she’s wanted to learn. And throughout college and graduate school, she’s had great professors who’ve inspired her every step of the way, she says.
But now, as she works on her Ph.D. in Community Health at the School of Public Health, Birdie is thinking about the future. And she knows this: she wants to someday represent a change in college classrooms.
Most of her professors in college career have been white, she says. Birdie — a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma who moved with her parents to Oregon when she was nine years old — wants to become a college professor herself someday. And she wants to help the next generation of college students experience a different college reality. She wants them to benefit from the differing views that someone who is not white can bring to the classroom, and to the study of public health, she says.
“Many of my most unforgettable learning experiences came from teachers and professors of color,” Birdie says. “They made me think outside of the box and understand how there are ‘real world problems’ that can’t go ignored. I’ve learned teaching skills along the way and that’s what makes being a diverse professor so important to me.”
Birdie is proud of her family’s heritage, but also realizes how rare she is in the academic world.
“In Indian country, Native American Ph.D.s are hard to come by,” she says. “There are very few of us.”
Still, higher education wasn’t completely foreign to Birdie’s family. Both of her parents attended college. Her mother earned an associate’s degree. Her father went to college on a baseball scholarship, but got injured and then left school to work and support his family.
The inspiration for Birdie enrolling in the Master of Public Health program at the School of Public Health in 2009 came from a few of her co-workers who had their master’s degree. She enjoyed their stories of how they made it through school, their struggles, adversities and their tenacity to pursue a degree. She took it as a challenge. She realized she would be the only female on both sides of her family to have a master’s degree.
“I just thought it was amazing,” she says. “To be the only Granddaughter, Daughter and Sister to have an MPH.”
But getting her M.P.H. was never assured, or easy.
Birdie had earned a bachelor’s degree in health and human kinetics from Warner Pacific. She played on both her high school and college basketball teams, and figured she would become an athletic trainer.
But after college, she got a job as a research assistant at the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, or NPAIHB, which performs health research and advocates to improve the health of Native Americans. And her love of health research was born.
“It just got me going — turned something on that I didn’t know I’d be interested in,” Birdie says.
Birdie continued working full time while working on her M.P.H. She got help from a $5,000 scholarship from the Native American Research Centers for Health, or NARCH.
She earned her M.P.H in 2012, and thought she might be done with school — until she listened to the speaker at PSU’s June 2013 Honor Day commencement ceremonies, which honors Native American, Alaskan Native and Pacific Islander graduates.
Evan Adams, the Native American keynote speaker, was an actor who became a medical doctor and then director of the Aboriginal Health program in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine. “When he told his story, I was so amazed,” she says. “Right then, in that moment, I said, ‘I want to go on and get my Ph.D. I want that to be me. I want to come back and tell my story.’”
She moved into a new job at NPAIHB, — as a national evaluator for the group’s epidemiology center. And in the spring of 2016, she started in the School of Public Health’s Ph.D. in Community Health program. Now 35 years old, she’s also the primary caregiver – with help from her family — for her four-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son. She’s continuing to work and taking one or two Ph.D. classes per term.
“It’s hard work,” Birdie says. “Sometimes I think about what I’m doing and say ‘This is crazy.’ But I’m doing it for myself, and for my children. So they know their mother did this. That she succeeded when maybe she shouldn’t have.”
Birdie received another scholarship from NARCH to help with her Ph.D. program. She knows she wouldn’t have been able to go to graduate school while supporting two children without financial support. That’s why she was excited to hear about the School of Public Health Dean’s Scholarship Fund — which will provide scholarships to first generation college students from lower-income families who represent diverse communities that often suffer the greatest health disparities. Those communities are also often underrepresented in graduate schools and the academic world, as Birdie knows.
The fund “will give students a chance they might not have had otherwise,” Birdie says. “They might be like me — a mother of two kids, who wants that education but doesn’t know how to go about it.”
As she continues work on her Ph.D., Birdie will explore a topic that is important to her community. She hopes to do her dissertation on gestational diabetes in Native American women — a condition she developed herself while she was pregnant with her son.
Thinking about the topic illustrates why she’s grown to love public health, and why she wants to learn more.
“I know by me having gestational diabetes, that’s going to affect my son and his life. And his children — the epigenetics of disease. It’s just so big,” she says. “There are so many things out there that go unanswered. And, I think, working with ethnic populations and disadvantaged populations – looking at poverty and racism – there’s just so much to learn. So much to learn in this short life.”